Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 77

27, rue de Fleurus September 2011

Usually the glass door only allows a glance into the far-away courtyard, well locked away by a modern door code – not like in my old Paris days, when all you had to do was push the door button and sneak past the concierge.
But magically, a Monsieur distingué came out just at that moment and politely held the door open for us. It was once again a strange feeling of moving through time, more so than ever, having just looked at all the photographs of rue de Fleurus in the SF exhibitions. The covered passage Stein and Toklas had built in order to get from their apartment to the atelier unempeded by the Paris weather, had been changed by later inhabitants, making it difficult to recognize the corner. But interestingly, the name on a discreet door bell today is still a Jewish name. (More photos on my Facebook page…)

Later that day, at the café restaurant Ma Bourgogne, at Place de Vosges, Kim and I met with Elizabeth Lennard, artist of film and video installtions, whose new documentary “The Stein Family, the Making of Modern Art” will play at the Grand Palais during the Paris run of The Steins Collect, starting in October, as I already mentioned in my last post. It will be distributed in the U.S. by Microcinema International (http://www.microcinema.com). If you are like me you are already missing The Steins Collect, the onslaught of modernism shown at SFMOMA. And if you can’t catch it again in Paris (I can’t either), Lennard’s DVD will bring it all back.
Have a look as some of her images and très avant-garde plays on film: http://elizabethlennard.com/Elizabeth_Lennard.html
Elizabeth and two other friends, filmmaker Emmy Scharlatt and painter Sonja Hopf, pointed us to a “must see” exhibition at the Jeu de Paume: photographs be Claude Cahun, another revolutionary modernist like Stein, although twenty years younger.

Claude Cahun (born Lucy Schwob) was perhaps the first performance artist/photographer of modern times, a forerunner of gender-bending body and peformance artists like Cindy Sherman in the seventies. Sherman (in the French Wikipedia) is still regarded as a “pioneer” of post-modern photography. We had no idea how late Sherman was, in fact!
What Stein did in writing, using all the possibilities of the Enlish language to circumvent gender and dissimulate her disadvantages of being a woman, Cahun did in her obsessive mise en scènes for her own camera. Her self-portraits subvert gender at every turn, presenting her as man, woman and everything in between and beyond. Like Stein, she does it with wit and irony, sometimes making fun of gender roles (comically posing as a body-builder), sometimes turning herself into romantic-erotic metamorphoses of princes or pirates in her very own 1001 Nights, and most often she seems deadly serious. She not only cut her hair short (Stein did it in 1926) but shaved it off completely. Her pale look (in a dark undershirt with bound breasts) leaves her as indistinct as an alien, an insect, or the marble “Sleeping Muse” by Brancusi.
Like Stein, Cahun had the unconditional support of a female life-companion, artist Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe), her stepsister with whom she had fallen in love at age fifteen. The two artists, with their male or male-sounding names, worked together on their photographs (sometimes double portraits) in the twenties; then Cahun, who also published her writing, joined the Surrealists and started working with photomontages and collages. Like Stein and Toklas, Cahun and Moore lived together their entire life, but these two apparently did it as artistic equals, without any apparent role division.
One other difference: Cahun and Moore were politicized and actively provoqued and sabotaged the Nazi occupiers on the island Jersey, where they had stayed during the war. Their brazen acts of resistance, trying to inspire German soldiers and military personnel to desert, got them a prison and execution sentence by the Gestapo. While Gertrude and Alice were “liberated” by the Allies, Claude and Marcel were saved from execution – to their frank regret — just in the nick of time.
It remains to be seen if French people draw parallels and distinctions between these remarkable avant-gardists, Stein and Cahun, and their life-companions.
More about Paris France to come, when I am less land-locked in the French provinces, at the Loire, with no DSL connection (another, more tedious trip backwards in time). Stay tuned.

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